Ex-NASA safety official warns of possible Mir trouble

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s chief of astronaut safety warned space agency officials last year that Mir was “a disaster waiting to happen” and urged an end to long U.S. stays aboard the Russian station, at least until it could be fixed.
Retired Air Force Col. Blaine Hammond said he was ignored by management and criticized by some of his colleagues for challenging NASA’s official position that the Russian space station was safe for astronauts despite a serious fire and a near-catastrophic collision.
“You’d have thought I was preaching heresy the way people reacted to that,” Hammond said Thursday. “They would let me talk, but they didn’t act like they were ever going to take it forward. You’d see eyes rolling or you’d get the impression, `Geez, here he goes again.'”
He said he was left with the impression that “there was a lot of politics involved in this, that it was a program going forward unless it was just absolutely, blatantly wrong.”
The shuttle-Mir program was conceived in the early 1990s as a crucial first step toward building an international space station. Just last week, NASA announced yet another delay in station assembly because of continued money problems in Russia.
NASA spokeswoman Peggy Wilhide insisted Thursday that the space agency took Hammond’s concerns seriously. He served on one of three panels assigned to look into Mir’s safety after a cargo ship rammed Mir last June, she said.
“The bottom line was that the experts that we had asked, the majority of them, determined that there were no technical or safety reasons to discontinue the program,” Wilhide said.
Hammond, a two-time space flier who now works as a civilian test pilot, never flew to Mir but took part in many of the space station debates as chief of the astronaut office safety branch.
He felt so strongly about the matter that he contacted NASA’s inspector general office and wrote two letters in confidence describing his concerns. The letters, dated July and October, were obtained by ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” and disclosed in a broadcast Wednesday night.
“Since the fire, I have had grave concerns for the safety of the American astronaut on board,” Hammond said in his July 30 letter.
“Mir is a disaster waiting to happen. We have been extremely lucky so far in the outcome of some recent major potentially catastrophic events.”
Wilhide said that in retrospect, NASA made the right decision. Mir, after all, has stabilized since last year and been home to additional U.S. astronauts, she said.